Saturday, September 25, 2021

Hold On, Hold On

You know, if Sainristil makes this catch, I really feel the second half feels very different. 
(Junfu Han/Detroit Free Press
Compared to some, I've been around
But I really tried so hard 
That echo chorus lied to me with its
Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on

--"Hold On, Hold On" by Neko Case from her 2008 album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood 


There is something to be said for the idea that winning a game where you look terrible for an entire half.  Michigan fans certainly have a number of these wins during the Harbaugh era that we can point to [gestures wildly towards 2019 Army], but it doesn't mean we have to like them.

Four home games in a row is a lot to ask of fans, especially after a year off.  First one, WOO, we're back.  Second one, WOO, night game.  Third one, OK, um, well, we're scoring a lot.  Four one, Homecoming, and...Rutgers.  So there's something to be said for looking really good in the first half.  A 17 play drive that takes up a full 1/8th of the game, and ending in a Haskins touchdown.  And sure, Rutgers went on their own six-minute, but that ended in a field goal, so we're good. Then a fast 4 play, 72-yard drive thanks to two big passing plays, a personal foul for a horse collar, and another Haskins touchdown.  So a stop on downs, an exchange of punts, and a field goal after the throw pictured above just missed, and then Michigan taking advantage of some...interesting Rutgers decision making, only to make some interesting decisions of their own in the last fifteen seconds, including a near miss to Schoonmaker, lands another Moody field goal and Michigan up 20-3.  Sure, Rutgers got the ball first to start the second half and Josh Ross had gone off with a stinger, but, Michigan was up 17.

3 plays for 0 yards.
3 plays for -1 yards.
3 plays for 7 yards (which came on a third down QB scramble).
3 plays for 5 yards.

While this was happening, Rutgers scored 10 points and missed a field goal.  Also, Michigan Stadium was doing the wave, because we have had a complete breakdown in Wave Discipline due to the pandemic.  Look to your elders, people.

Rutgers gets the ball after a punt on their own 34 with 7:57 left in the second half. After six yards from Isaih Pacheco and 13 on the ground from Noah Vedral (side note: I love that players can wear #0, but man it looks wrong on a quarterback), Rutgers is first and ten on the Michigan 47.  Michigan's defense is gassed because the offense can't seem to stay on the field for more than 90 seconds at a time.  Now it's third and one, and Michigan's defense finally shows up and gets a stop for a loss.  Now fourth and a long two, the defense comes up big again and gets the ball back on downs, again.

So when Blake Corum went outside for nine yards, it felt like Michigan finally remembered there were multiple ways to move the ball, then followed by six up the gut, and another two.  Then a gift of a face mask penalty and Michigan is first and ten on the Rutgers 30 with 3:14 left.  At this point, you could be forgiven for thinking "OK, a few more yards, center it for Moody, and we'll get out of this damn thing alive."  Well, you could be forgiven that unless you were the Michigan offensive staff, because that's what they apparently did, only to see Moody miss a 47 yarder.  104 seconds left, can Rutgers do it?

No, they could not.  The Thane of Fife himself, David Ojabo, forced the fumble, Junior Colson scooped it up, and Michigan survived.

"Hang on tight and survive.  Everybody does."

There's no great lesson for the fan here beyond scoring a lot of points is way more fun than not, that the running game is not as vaunted as it may have seemed in the first three games, but ugly wins are still wins and Michigan gets out of September unscathed.  But the things to work on this week are plentiful, and Camp Randall, a place Michigan has not won at in 20 years, looms.  But for now, be glad that 20 points was enough.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Last Lion of Albion

This might have been the most challenging touchdown Michigan scored all game.
This might have been the most challenging touchdown Michigan scored all game.
(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Last lion of Albion
They'll use you for centuries to come
Your wound is the main road into London
You'll feel extinction
When you see your face on their money
--"Last Lion of Albion" by Neko Case from the album Hell On (2018)

Walking from the parking garage to the Big House, I turned to Dave, my college roommate and frequent seatmate for the last 25 years, and said "I miss the old days when there would not be a sense of doubt about the result of this game.  It would be a standard game against a MAC team."

About that...

I was not expecting this.  I didn't even know I could hope for this.  The most relaxing day I've had at the Big House in the 21st Century.  The moment NIU chose to kick a field goal on 4th and 2 from the 3, having driven the ball pretty well on their second drive, I knew this was just a matter of Michigan picking the point total and the matter of how they arrived at that point.  I do not know I have ever seen a day where every single aspect of the game for Michigan looked like it was clicking.  Over 600 yards of offense, a 60-40 rushing yardage/passing yardage split, 7.8 yards per rush, 13.7 yards per pass, this is just an absolute destruction of a MAC team that already has a win over a P5 team on the road this year.

I spent a lot of time over the summer fretting about Michigan's best days as a football program being behind them.  It would not be that hard to argue, in part due to the lofty heights of the earliest years of Michigan football as "the West's" leading program.  It would be impossible to ever reach that again, but even the Michigan of the 1940s, the Michigan of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s seem like reasonable goals to aspire to in the modern era.  It is easy to point at the struggles of 1990s powers like Nebraska, Tennessee, and Florida State and feel like Michigan might be consigned to that glorious past.  There are no guarantees that this season won't end in heartache and disappointment.  Truth be told, most seasons do for most teams.  But for one warm, sunny Saturday afternoon, that felt like it was the furthest thing from the realm of possibility.  Michigan handled its business in the non-conference schedule, won more games than it did last year before September was over and allowed even the most cynical among the fanbase the chance to at least consider being willing to dream for a bit.

Three running backs who look like they can maul, burst, break tackles, get yards after contact, and slip through the holes being opened for them.  Solid passing with a group of receivers who look like they can adjust and go.  Playcalling that looks like it is taking what it is given and going from there.  A defense that does not look confused and remembers how to finish tackles after the first or second drive.   
Homecoming against Rutgers next week looks like it could be a fun one, with "football weather" on the docket.  

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Set Out Running

I mean, 173 yards on 21 carries and three TDs is a pretty great day at the office.
(Kirthmon Dozier-Detroit Free Press)

And if I knew heartbreak was coming
I would've set out running
'Cause I just can't shake this feeling
That I'm nothing in your eyes 
--"Set Out Running", Neko Case, Furnace Room Lullaby (2000) 

I sat there on that bright, crisp day in late November 2010 watching Montee Ball and James White combine for 354 yards rushing and six touchdowns as Bret Bielema decided that he would run the ball down the throat of the Michigan defense until it showed it could stop it.  It could not.  It had no answer, and Michigan lost by 20.  I remember the lament of the Michigan fans that it was so maddening that the Greg Robinson coordinated defense could not do one of the fundamental tasks of defense, but also, with the gallows humor of that era, respecting Bielema's basic decision that "this plan is working, why mess with it?"

Last night, Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum ran for 326 yards, and four touchdowns as Michigan handled its business against Washington before an eager and enthusiastic maize crowd and a national television audience in prime time.    Even taking away Corum's one massive 67 yard TD run, both backs averaged over 5 yards per carry.  I am not an advanced stats expert, but that feels like it's pretty good.

There is a segment of fans who are deeply, garment rendingly concerned that Michigan did not show much of anything in the passing game.  Against what might be the best secondary they face all season.  While trying to figure out the new wide receiver depth chart after losing Ronnie Bell for the season last week.  While averaging 5 yards per carry on the ground.  I can understand the gnashing of teeth that "they won't be able to get away with this in the Big Ten."  OK, maybe?  But also, maybe?  I understand the feelings of hurt and concern that there's been too much in the way of false hope and glimmering early promises that fade as reality sets in as September becomes October.  But, my goodness, this worked.  You're allowed to enjoy this!  There are no fandom bonus points for being worried about things the coaching staff is doing.

But, to stay focused on the positives, a win where both sides of the ball looked good, but with some clear room for improvement in practice, a Michigan Stadium atmosphere where it finally looked like The Big House was a challenging environment to play in for an opposing team, an MMB show that was fascinating to watch, and the rare feeling that while traditional blue bloods around the country lost (Ohio State, USC, Florida State, Tennessee) while Michigan did not.  Michigan may not be where the exceedingly lofty expectations would like us to be, but we're also not as far off the cliff as some other late 90s powers have fallen.  So there's that.

There was one thing during last night's game that made me very happy.  After the Corum touchdown, which seemed to be the football gods rewarding Harbaugh for being willing to go for it with a "fake punt" in Michigan territory, the entire team was feeling it deeply on the Michigan sideline.  There was a level of Dani Rojas-style "football is life!!!" joy being expressed, the jumping, the dancing, the hyping of the crowd.  There have been many grumblings about the team's bad chemistry in the past, and winning does cure a lot of ills, but that moment, among a tapestry of other positive moments last night, felt like a that was enjoying being a football team.  If this football team enjoys football and enjoys their teammates, that's a victory in and of itself.

One set of Huskies in the books, a new one comes to Ann Arbor next week.

Saturday, September 04, 2021

That Teenage Feeling

Get well, Ronnie Bell.  (Mike Mulholland |
Get well, Ronnie Bell.  (Mike Mulholland |

And nothing comforts me the same
As my brave friend who says,
"I don't care if forever never comes
'Cause I'm holding out for that teenage feeling
I'm holding out for that teenage feeling"

                                --"That Teenage Feeling"  Neko Case 

 I think it's the small moments that get you, the ones you thought you saw coming but they hit you in an unexpected way.  This week, plus four days, marks the 25th anniversary of my first Michigan game as a student, a weird, but fun 20-8 Michigan scorigami (still) win over Illinois in the dying August heat of Michigan Stadium.  Though I had been to the Big House before, there was a sense of culmination, that everything I had wanted up to that point in my life had been validated.  Not by getting into Michigan, not by moving into my dorm room in Bursley, but sitting in the student section for an actual game on my 18th birthday.  Those feelings seem perhaps na├»ve and misguided in retrospect and with the benefit of lived experience, but they were genuine then.  I chose to wear my recently acquired from eBay Jarrett Irons #37 home jersey to the game today, because it felt right, honoring a true Michigan great who just happened to graduate right before being able to be part of a team that went down in history.

There was a whole long section here, written in the vein of other very good recent season openers, that dealt with what we have lost, what we're missing, the challenges therein.  I felt that deeply and I hope that perhaps in getting my thoughts down on paper, I would be able to sort them all out.  While what I said was good and somewhat cathartic to me, it also doesn't need to be shared, because it doesn't really solve anything for me.  But I appreciate and respect the friends and writers who have been putting those feelings out there and the folks who have been reading and seeing themselves in those pieces.  But that is a piece that should have rolled out when 2021 was still an unknown.  We have limited data now; we can't stare into the shapeless abyss any longer.

This game, this opener, doesn't really solve anything.  And you know what, that's OK.  Because it doesn't need to solve anything.  It is preferable when Michigan looks like it knows what it's doing against a G5 school, the hand-wringing can wait for another week, that's nice.  There were big plays on offense by players that the collective us were hoping would be there.  There was Ronnie Bell with a big score followed by a visit with the men's basketball team in the end zone, a play that came after a ridiculous catch that was wiped out by an OPI call so questionable Bell should be allowed to file a defamation lawsuit against it.  (Our best to Ronnie Bell and hoping for good injury news, but not expecting it.)  There was Blake Corum, on a swing pass, on a kickoff return, on yard after yard after initial contact, being the muscleball we knew he could be.  There was Hassan Haskins just running in that punishing style of his.  There was AJ Henning, getting one touch but making the most of it.  There was Cade McNamara, playing within himself, but 9/11 for 136 and 2 TDs when they didn't really need him to do more.  There was JJ McCarthy, 4/6 but making absolutely absurd throw across the hypotenuse of the field to find Daylen Baldwin for a very nice touchdown to put Michigan up by 40.  These things felt good for players who labored in an uncertain silence last season, to hear the roar of approval from the Big House crowd.

We know all too well the dangers of reading too much into one game of a season, but let's not worry about what this portends, good or ill.  Let's not worry about where this will fit in the historical context of Michigan history, as the 1,349th game of Michigan football.  Let's not fret about next week, that's for the coaches and the players to handle, and they will.  For this moment, for this one moment, let's savor being back in the Big House, watching a team of players who love Michigan as much as we do, play with the vigor and enthusiasm that one hopes for.  The story of the season will be written in time.  It will unfold, page by page, and it will be inked indelibly in the record by January at the latest.  College football lives too often in the past and in the future to truly enjoy the present.  Let's resolve to do that, if just for this one week.  We can go back to being who we are next week, heck, probably by Monday, maybe Tuesday because of the holiday.  But for now, enjoy it, relish it, it's the kind of feeling we long for during the long months of the off-season.